Thursday, February 14, 2013


Maximillian Schell specifically asked Dietrich in his documentary “Marlene” if she had any siblings and she tersely replied “no, none”, immediately after which they showed a close-up of a photo of Marlene and her sister as children. Her butler then informed Schell that she kept the photo on display in her apartment, but had it moved out of sight before Schell and his crew arrived.

The cinema that her sister Elisabeth ran with her husband Georg, according to Marlene’s grandson David Riva, was just 400 feet away from the infamous concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. "All the troops went there. In Marlene's logical point of view, there was no way on Earth that this family could not have been aware of what was happening in Bergen-Belsen."

The Allies' favourite German of the Second World War - the actress Marlene Dietrich - spent the last 47 years of her life denying the existence of a "secret sister" who had worked with Nazi troops at the Bergen-Belsen death camp, according to new evidence.
The story of how Elisabeth Will was erased from history by the legendary Berlin-born star of stage and screen has come to light, thanks to an 86-year-old former British Army officer. Arnold Horwell, now living in London, was part of a British force responsible for clearing up the horrifying carnage left at Bergen-Belsen in April 1945.

Among Allied troops who occupied the camp, it soon became well known that a woman who had worked in a troop canteen used by Nazis throughout the period of Bergen-Belsen's worst atrocities, and who was still living in a flat there, was claiming to be Dietrich's elder sister.

Mrs Will and her husband, Georg, had run the canteen in a troop cinema where German soldiers and SS officers went to relax and watch films approved by Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister.

Dietrich, who was on the staff of the American General Omar Bradley and had been entertaining troops for a year in Europe, heard talk of Mrs Will being on the site and wanted to find her. One day, she stunned Mr Horwell by flinging open the door of his office in search of her sister.

Mr Horwell said: "I was sitting at my desk and there appeared a very glamorous officer in an American uniform with a stream of blonde hair coming down from one side of her helmet. It was extraordinary to see a beautiful woman dressed like that. She introduced herself as Capt Marlene Dietrich of General Omar Bradley's staff. I remember it word for word. It has stuck with me all these years. She asked about her sister.

"I then drove her off in a Jeep to see her. The sister had worked peeling potatoes in a canteen. I introduced her and they embraced. They were very pleased to see each other. All the details are recorded because I sent letters to my wife about everything that happened and these are now in the Imperial War Museum in London."

The story has been reported in the latest edition of Der Spiegel magazine, which says that Dietrich, who left Germany in 1930 and became an American citizen in 1937 as Hollywood catapulted her to world-wide fame, subsequently denied her sister's existence. Her claim to be an only child had been accepted by biographers but mystified Mr Horwell.

He said: "I knew she had a sister. I introduced them to each other." Der Spiegel makes clear that Dietrich, who was profoundly anti-Nazi, became deeply ashamed of Mrs Will's association with Bergen-Belsen. She also realised that her reputation could have been ruined if word got out that she had a sister who had worked with Nazis at the camp.

Immediately after the meeting at Bergen-Belsen, Dietrich appears to have tried to paint her sister as a victim of the Nazis, rather than a willing helper. She also requested that the Allies, including Mr Horwell, made no mention of the family connection to the press.

Soon after the war, however, Dietrich had to change strategy when it became evident that Mrs Will regarded the Nazis as people of "moral integrity". Instead she began merely to deny having had a sister at all.

Of Elisabeth and Georg Will, Der Spiegel wrote: "The proximity [of the canteen] to the death camp, the permanent contact with SS concentration camp overseers and the financial rewards they received from the canteen put them, morally, close to the Nazis. This relationship could damage Marlene's fame."

Before and during the war Goebbels had tried to persuade Dietrich to return to Germany, thereby preventing her from entertaining the Allies. Hitler also tried to lure her back with an offer that she could make films of her choice in Germany. After the war Mrs Will carried on living in Belsen, where she died in 1973. Privately, despite the fact that Dietrich kept her sister's existence a secret, Der Spiegel claims the two still made occasional private contact. Dietrich died in 1992...



  1. I had never heard of a sister before ... what a horrible situation. Germans in America were so suspect during the war, I can see why Dietrich would deny her sister. It's hard to put ourselves in her place now, but at the time it would have been disastrous for Dietrich, no matter how much she may have denied any feeling for anyone who was part of the Nazi party. I can't imagine having a sister who supported and worked in a concentration camp. Good article, David.

    1. Her sister did not work in a concentration camp;she peeled potatoes in a canteen in proximity of Bergen-Belsen. She had to survive & perhaps like many Germans, was told it was a Work Camp. We cannot judge her as we are not in her same situation. Today, we buy many products that come from child labors, or concentrations camps in North Korea, done by prisoners, we live near Abortion clinics were thousands of unborn babies are killed and yet we do nothing..

  2. Marlene didn't become an American citizen until 1939 (see p. 2 of this PDF from her FBI file), but she did apply for citizenship back in 1937. The man who speaks in Schell's documentary was not in fact MD's butler but a friend of hers named Bernard Hall who also acted as her choreographer, secretary, and other odd positions over the decades. Steven Bach wrote in his MD bio that Hall had already been in retirement in London when MD summoned him to help her during the Schell tapings. By the way, are you referring to a recent Der Spiegel item or one published in 2000? I'd be surprised if the magazine were to rehash its own "expose"!

    About MD's relationship with her sister, it's interesting to note that she didn't always deny her sister's existence and that newspapers misreported that Elisabeth was a prisoner at Bergen-Belsen back in 1945 (see New York Times, May 18, 1945, or this free-to-access article from the same period).

  3. There is another resource worth checking out as well--this Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin newsletter. The Marlene Dietrich Collection Berlin possesses an enormous amount of MD materials from her estate (including correspondences), and this newsletter quotes something straight from MD's pen (or typewriter?): "The fact that I am not mentioning my sister is simply a promise I gave and keep even today. When I found her in Belsen, she asked me to stay anonymous for ever."

  4. In the early 80s I spent an afternoon with an elderly lady in Gstaad who told me she was Marlene's sister. Her sister is reported to have died in 1973 so it has always puzzled me as to who I met, maybe it was Marlene herself!

  5. My father was attached to the British 7th armored Division when they liberated Bergen-Belsen and claimed her saw Marlene Dietrich arrive at the camp to see her sister. This was back when I was a kid in the 50's and 60's. A lot of people would not believe him but history proved him right!